Adjusting to Life in Portugal

This one is for all the friends who have worried, and all the strangers who have asked slightly incredulous questions about my decision to move … how are you adjusting to Portugal?  It’s so… different….

Short answers:  Just fine, thank you.  Yes it is – thank heavens!

When I made up my mind to move I didn’t look back, I haven’t yet, and I don’t imagine I ever will.  I loved England, but there were compelling reasons to move on.  I love Portugal too, but yes, there have been a few low points and some rough spots still, so here’s what it’s been like, really.  Perhaps a candid tale of my own experience will help other folks who contemplate similar changes from one country to another.

A bit of context:  born and raised in the States I reached a point in my life when I took stock and thought about the things that were actually personal priorities for me, as opposed to all the priorities that were ruling my life according to everyone else’s expectations.  I then looked around me and couldn’t think of a place in the States that suited my requirements.  I don’t know why, except possible divine intervention, but as I thought about and ruled out every American region and city I could think of, the thought of England went across my mind like the text on a stock market ticker tape.  When I saw that in my mind’s eye I simply knew it was the answer.  I had never been to England, had no idea how I would make the move, but from that moment I never doubted I would.  About two years later I was ready to go, and it all fell into place like clockwork – absolutely eerie how finding a job, getting moved, finding a place to live, everything, fell into place.  Life in England from the start was better for me than life in the States had ever been.  This despite the fact I didn’t know a soul over there when I arrived.

The story of my decision to leave the City and seek work in the wine trade is told pithily in the “About” page, but the blog entries throughout 2009 form the chronicle of that search.

What was never said was that my three wine regions of choice were always Burgundy, the Douro, and Piedmont.  Burgundy was the prudent place to start looking as I had some contacts there and already spoke French (whatever the French may have thought about it!).  My next choice was the Douro – I knew one soul in Portugal, though not in the Douro, and knew no Portuguese – and third was the Piedmont – where I knew no one at all and didn’t know Italian either.

Summer 2009, after six weeks in Burgundy job hunting to no avail, and not just one but two failed sales on my house left me without financial resources to pay for viticultural school, though I had been accepted to the CFPPA in Beaune.  I felt like Burgundy was locking the door against me, so I travelled through France down to Porto for the first time.

I vividly remember the morning I arrived after something like 18 hours overnight by train, dumping my pack in the pensão and wandering out down the Rua Santa Catarina and then just by instinct really, heading down the hill, and finding the pedestrian access to the upper deck of the Dom Luis I bridge.  I walked partway across – I admit the height, in my exhausted state, was slightly dizzying – and I saw the Gaia waterfront and all the legendary port lodges for the first time.  Warre’s 1963 was my first glass of port and I found the sign on the roof of their warehouse right in the middle of the vista.  Just as when the thought of London crossed my mind so many years before, at that moment I just knew.  Knew I could do this – though I had no clue exactly what “this” was going to be, except a move to Gaia for starters.  Even now when I walk across that bridge and stop to look, that moment and sensation comes back to me, and I admit I get pretty emotional, just overwhelming gratitude for how well it has all worked out since.

So first hint for life changers:  go with the gut instinct.  If that is clear, the rest will fall into place.  All the misery in my life (and sadly, some misery I have unintentionally  caused others) has been a direct result of over-riding my own gut instinct.  Even at the time of making my errors I often knew the back of my mind was standing there, tapping its foot saying, in that irritating sing-song voice, “you’ll be sorry…”  But the front of my mind would prevail, insisting on doing the prudent thing, the “right” thing according to a lot of external expectations.

It took a while to learn to recognise and trust my own instincts to this degree – I’ve been a late bloomer – but it is powerful when it kicks in, and I finally learned to listen to that and shut out all the contrarians.  It’s tough sometimes, I’ve dealt with some phenomenally rude questions (and developed a repertoire of witty light-hearted answers to deflect the inquisitioners, some of which are double-edged if need be) and disconnected the phone for weeks at a time so I wouldn’t have to deal with the nay-sayers.  On the other hand, I have received just astonishing kindness, encouragement and support from absolute strangers as well as a few beloved friends.  You learn to laugh at the ratty people (once they go away) and thank god for the supportive.

I found and quoted this in my blog last summer, and it is worth repeating:

Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred.

I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, magic and power in it’

W H Murray (from the Scottish Himalayan Expedition)

So, after a week in Porto and Lisboa, I returned to England with the clear conviction I should move to Gaia, and trust in fate from there.  Again, the blog tells a lot of the tale from that point on, and once I arrived here in November, providence moved too.

I had only a rough plan:  first priority was to learn the language and get to know the two cities of Porto and Gaia.  I had thought of going straight up to the Douro and perhaps settling up there, but my gut gave me a clear “not-yet” on that, though I would have loved to – it’s the vineyards I love more than anything.  But it felt more right to settle in Gaia to start, in order to learn the language and learn about the different port houses and the trade.  My plans ended there – I didn’t know how long that would take, or what I would learn, I just thought, by the time I do those things, the next steps will become clear.

So.  Adjusting.  There are lots of books which try to tell you about the logistics and bureaucracy of  settling into the country of your choice.  Borrow them, read them for curiousity, but don’t waste money or rely on them, as they are outdated by the time they are published.   I tried asking some Portuguese people how to do things, but of course their experience is different as a native, so however much they want to advise, sometimes they can’t, they just don’t know how a foreigner has to deal with any given bureaucratic hurdle.  Make it a priority to find someone who’s done it before you, recently, to help.  I got lucky meeting Fernando, a fellow student at the language school, who had just settled in Gaia, having moved from Spain.  He literally took me under his wing one day, on the bus over to Gaia and introduced me to someone to help me with getting my número fiscal de contribuinte (the key to all Portuguese bureaucracy) and then pointed out the estate agent who found my flat.

I was also given contact names for several other Brits who had settled in Portugal, with the assurance they could help me.  With the best will in the world they couldn’t – they were all people who had moved here 20 years ago because they married a Portuguese.  Their experiences had no relevance to my coming here, now, alone.  There were some low points when I realised I wasn’t going to get any help or guidance from these people or from other sources I’d hoped could advise.  I’ve been alone all my life, I am accustomed to having to get over it and on with it and figure things all out myself, but in a foreign country, when you’re up against the language barrier too… it’s tough.  Don’t underestimate the sheer emotional as well as physical fatigue of adjustment, and give yourself slack to deal with it.

There is a series of books called Culture Shock: [insert country name].  The one for Portugal is one of the better ones in the series for actually giving one an impression of the quality of life, the cultural priorities for the Portuguese, which I found rang pretty true.  But the books also make the very important point that culture shock is not just what a first-world citizen experiences when suddenly confronted with an utterly alien primitive culture.  Culture shock is also the low level discomfort of constantly encountering and dealing with all the relentless tiny differences in a culture that isn’t – or you think shouldn’t be – that alien.

By the time I arrived here, I had been travelling more or less constantly for about 9 months.  I should have been accustomed to everything being unfamiliar.  Somehow, once I was in the flat, I caught myself thinking, damnit, it should be comfortable and familiar now, now I’ve settled into what will be my home.  Nope.  Takes more than a lease before you can create a comfort zone for yourself.

What helped:  the entire time I travelled I carried with me a favourite pottery mug and teas.  That mug and the aroma and taste of that tea became “home”, a comfort zone to which I could escape when everything else was too much.  Tim, if you are reading this, thank you from the bottom of my heart for the supplies of Big Smoke and suggesting I blend my own “English Caravan” from that and Early Grey.  The tea was immediate warmth and comfort, and the image it always conjured of your shop, Postcard Teas and all the time spent there, and all the encouragement and support you gave me in the year before I left England, have gotten me through a lot of black holes.

The other huge help:  a sense of humour.  Mercifully I have an ability to detach and look at things as if I were hovering up in the corner of the ceiling looking down on the physical me in situ, and when I do, I invariably start laughing.  It doesn’t always happen in the moment, sometimes not until afterwards when I reach the point of mental replay, but as soon as it does, I know I’m safe, I’ll get through.

The absolute five star low point of the move was this:  in mid-December I left the warmth and comfort of the Pensão do Norte and moved into my flat.  I was lucky it came with a couch (if a toe-curlingly filthy one) and a table and chairs in the kitchen.  It had a fridge, cooker and washing machine which… worked (I’m being more generous than you can imagine in describing all this).  I had made a run to Ikea for a little cooking gear to see me through till my things arrived from England, and I had all my dirty clothes and faithful laptop in the backpack.  And my tea.

The cost of a duvet at Ikea was more than the cost of everything else put together, and I balked at the expense, and passed on it, thinking I’d find something cheaper another day.  So, the first night in the flat I had no blanket, sheet, nothing.  I “knew” – had read – that most houses in Portugal don’t have central heating, since the winters aren’t that severe, really.  Knowing it from reading, and knowing it from experience are very, very different.

The winter so far had been very mild and the weather had been lovely.  The day I moved into the flat it broke.  Bitter cold and torrential rains.   Near midnight I finally went to bed (or couch) fully heavily clothed and dozed off.  Not much later I woke myself up, I was shivering so violently from the cold.  I pulled out more clothes and shawls from my backpack and sort of stacked them on top of me for warmth, but was shivering so hard they all kept slipping off me to the floor.  Then there was the noise:  the building has a tiled façade which ends in an overhang above a verandah outside my flat, so all the rain was running off the face of the building in a solid sheet and hitting the verandah with a noise like a machine gun that never ran out of ammunition.  Somewhere in the early dawn I got up and went into the kitchen to get a glass of water, and found I was wading through a half centimetre of water on the floor – the rain was coming down so hard and accumulating so rapidly on the verandah it was flooding in under the door to the kitchen.

Bad low point.  I crawled back onto the sofa, curled up in ball as tight as I could and then pulled all my dirty clothes out of the back pack and piled them on top of me for warmth.  Then I cried.  Then of course, I reached the point I’d been crying so long and so hard I got the hiccups.  Then of course, I was hiccuping so hard all the piled up clothes started falling off, sliding to the floor.  At which point, thank god, I detached and saw myself from that ceiling vantage point and just started laughing uncontrollably.  Which didn’t help the hiccups at all, but it helped me immensely.  I shook off the rest of the dirty clothes, washed up and went out to buy a duvet, the biggest fattest warmest duvet Ikea makes, and I have to say it has been worth every penny.  They don’t have central heating in Portugal.

This has become very long, so will write about cultural and language matters separately.

To rest your eyes:  my beloved Douro at Tua, 6:30 one August morning.

2 thoughts on “Adjusting to Life in Portugal

  1. Cynthia,

    You’ve outdone yourself in weaving this tale of truth and travail. A fine read. Few people I’ve met have literally followed their dreams and tossed away comfort for happiness. You have done so, successfully at that and deserve lots of credit for facing the pain along the way.

  2. Roy, thank you! You were one of the people in my mind when I spoke of utter strangers showing great support. This article has covered all the down-sides, the next part will talk about all the absolutely wonderful up-sides! Stay tuned.

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